Credit card disputes have long been the last line of defense against airlines who don’t follow the law
If your travel company is dragging its feet on a coronavirus refund, you need to know how to win a credit card dispute.
Asking a bank to force a merchant to return your money is typically a last resort. But that’s where we are now. We’re at the end.
Some travel companies and airlines have quietly changed their refund rules in the past few weeks They are demanding that consumers accept a credit voucher that expires after a year or two. They’ve violated federal laws or the terms of their contracts, citing extraordinary circumstances.
An “explosion” in credit card disputes
“Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion in credit card disputes,” says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder of Chargebacks911, a company that specializes in credit card disputes. “The major problem is, people are filing disputes the wrong way. It’s adding additional hardships on businesses that are already struggling with disruptions, loss of income and sick employees.”
Already, more travelers had been turning to disputes to resolve their problems. But the coronavirus crisis could make a credit card dispute the first option, as opposed to the last, in some cases. And that might be a mistake.
When do you file a credit card dispute?
Only under certain conditions. When the company disregards its own contract or federal laws. For example, if an airline cancels your flight, the Transportation Department says it must offer a refund within seven days if you paid by credit card. You need to meet some requirements, but if you can’t negotiate a refund, your bank can help.
Christopher Keaton is one of the thousands of travelers mulling over a credit card dispute. Sandals, a resorts company, recently canceled his five-night stay at the Royal Caribbean, an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Instead of refunding his $11,515, Sandals offered him a voucher for a future stay. He says company representatives phoned him repeatedly, pressuring him to accept the voucher. (Never try to resolve a consumer problem by phone.)
“I have no idea when I will be able to travel again,” says Keaton, a police officer from Boston, “and, personally, after dealing with Sandals, I have no desire to go there.”
The Sandals contract permits refunds requested 30 days before check-in, but Keaton’s agreement doesn’t address a Sandals-initiated cancellation. A Sandals representative said the company is offering guests like Keaton an extended credit for 18 months. That’s in line with other hospitality companies.
“To date, the feedback from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive about the revisions to our policies and the lengths we are going to accommodate their future travel plans,” says Maggie Rivera, a spokeswoman for Sandals.
How would a credit card dispute work?
Keaton could ask the bank that issued the card to take action on his behalf. This is allowed under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), which protects consumers against charges for goods and services they didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered. He’d tell the bank that Sandals sold him a resort stay in April, then canceled it and kept his money.
The bank would contact Sandals and ask it to produce documentation of the charge. If Sandals was unable to prove that Keaton agreed to terms that allowed the company to offer a voucher instead of a refund, he should get his money back.
How much time do you have to file a credit card dispute? Although the FCBA says you have 60 days to dispute a charge, banks are sometimes more flexible when dealing with travel that’s booked in advance. In other words, don’t let a travel merchant talk you out of a dispute just because it’s been more than two months since your purchase.
Before you file a credit card dispute, make sure the travel company failed to live up to its promises.
“When you book travel, you’re likely to be presented with the terms of your purchase, much the same way retail stores have a return policy published at the checkout and on the receipt,” says Greg Mahnken, an analyst for Credit Card Insider. “Read the terms.”
How to win a credit card dispute
Don’t call your bank immediately. Try to negotiate a refund first, advises Zaky Prabowo, the co-founder of WeTravel, a San Francisco-based payment and booking platform for group and multiday tour operators. Under the FCBA, you’re not required to contact a merchant first about a billing error, but you may be able to resolve the problem without a dispute.
“The owners of these companies value their reputation and their customers above anything else,” Prabowo says. “They want to refund you or find a solution that satisfies you. But due to the crisis and their cash flow situation, they might not be able to do that as fast as you’d expect.”
There are limits to what a credit card dispute can do for you. First, don’t expect too much from your bank in a post-coronavirus world. “The truth is that in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a flood of these credit card disputes are going to come in. Issuers may not be as generous as they’ve been in the past,” says Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst for CompareCards, a credit card site.
And even if you’re successful, a travel company might try to send a collection agency after you. It could even blacklist you, although that is illegal. Car rental companies are notorious for adding customers to “do not rent” lists if they file successful chargebacks.
Finally, there’s the danger that your chargeback may hit the wrong target and destroy it. That would be the small travel agency you used to make the reservation. If it took your money, it could be on the line for the full amount. A few chargebacks like that are enough to put a small travel agency out of business. And haven’t we already seen enough destruction?
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.